Government Pressed Over FOI Extension

The Government is facing further calls to bring private companies providing public services under government contract within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act after the Information Commissioner recommended the change in a lengthy report.

The News Media Association has campaigned for many years to defend the FOI Act from restrictions and for its extension to cover local and national government contractors providing public services, arguing that it improved public oversight and public accountability, which would thereby also add value for the taxpayer.

Last week, in a report ‘Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law’, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham called for urgent action to bring private companies providing public services under the scope of the FOIA and made a series of recommendations to improve transparency,

In oral questions in the House of Commons yesterday Daniel Zeichner MP pressed the Government to act on the report. He said: “As the Information Commissioner tells us, the Government spend £284 billion a year on external suppliers that are currently beyond the scope of freedom of information laws.

“The Information Commissioner tells us that that would have made a difference at both Grenfell and Carillion, so why will the Government not commit to real transparency and adopt the Information Commissioner’s recommendations?”

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary, said the Government would “consider carefully” the Information Commissioner’s report.  

In a leader, The Times backed Ms Denham’s recommendations. It said: “Yet the regime is looking rusty. It only applies to ‘public authorities’ or those that hold information on their behalf. This means that, for the most part, companies and charities with government contracts are not covered. The government spends £284 billion a year, almost a third of its total expenditure, on external suppliers. Huge swathes of public services are therefore allowed to fail in the dark.

“New Labour opened government up. No sooner had it done so, however, than it redefined government altogether, bringing the private sector into the fold. That was a good thing, but contractors do sometimes make catastrophic mistakes. When that happens, the public have the right to know. MPs should listen to Ms Denham, and change the law.”

The NMA hosted a lunch for the Information Commissioner this week.